Features | Security

Can the UK Achieve Its Naval Ambitions in the Indo-Pacific?

The Royal Navy is sending its aircraft carrier to the Pacific. What comes next will be far more telling.

By Ian Storey for
Can the UK Achieve Its Naval Ambitions in the Indo-Pacific?

In this photo taken on Dec. 7, 2017, a naval officer looks up at the white ensign flag flying at the stern of the HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth.

Credit: Richard Pohle Pool Photo via AP

This time next year, if all goes according to plans currently being drawn up by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense, the Royal Navy (RN) will have deployed its biggest flotilla of warships to Asia in a generation.

The carrier strike group (CSG) will be led by the RN’s largest ever warship, the $3.9 billion, 65,000-ton aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. The carrier will embark a squadron of Royal Air Force F-35B fighter jets as well as a squadron of U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) F-35Bs. The Queen Elizabeth will be accompanied by approximately nine to 10 other warships, a mix of destroyers, frigates, support ships and submarines, possibly including a vessel from a NATO ally. A dress rehearsal recently took place off Scotland.

The flotilla will visit Southeast Asia, almost certainly calling in at Changi Naval Base in Singapore. It may also participate in naval activities to mark the 50th anniversary of the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA), the military alliance that links the U.K. with Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand. It will sail through the South China Sea — probably participating in combined exercises with warships from the U.S., Japan, and Australia — inevitably raising China’s ire. The CSG may then move on to Japan, calling in at ports along the way. After the five to six month deployment the flotilla will return to the U.K.

Although the mission has elicited much interest in the media, it is the Queen Elizabeth’s future activities, and those of her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales (due to become operational in 2023), that are more intriguing. For the RN’s top brass has indicated that they would like to see the carriers spend a good deal of their working lives in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Royal Navy and the Indo-Pacific Region

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At a webinar hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in July, Vice Admiral Jerry Kyd, the RN’s fleet commander, described aircraft carriers as a “metaphor for a nation-state that intends to be relevant on the global stage at the strategic level.” Carriers can, he said, fulfill a number of missions including strategic messaging, power projection, naval diplomacy and trade promotion.

Kyd noted that while the Euro-Atlantic remains Britain’s center of strategic gravity, especially given the threat posed by a resurgent Russia, the RN was “coming back” to the Indo-Pacific and that “our ambition is to be absolutely persistent and be forward there, maybe with a carrier strike group or maybe not.”

Kyd’s comments are broadly consistent with British policy. Following the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016, the ruling Conservative Party has promoted the vision of a “Global Britain” that includes a bigger military footprint in the Indo-Pacific.

Between 2018 and 2020, the RN sent five warships to Asia. Each of those warships sailed through the South China Sea, and one of them, HMS Albion, conducted a U.S.-style freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the Paracel Islands in August 2018. The U.K. believes that freedom of navigation is one of the central pillars of the rules-based international order and is committed to upholding it. In September, Britain joined with France and Germany in endorsing the 2016 arbitral tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea, which dismissed China’s nine-dash line claims as being incompatible with UNCLOS. A persistence British naval presence in Asia would help support freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea.

A Persistent Presence

But what exactly is a persistent presence and how might it be achieved?

Although we will have a much clearer of idea of London’s strategic intentions toward the Indo-Pacific when the government publishes its Integrated Security, Defense, and Foreign Policy Review later this year, some informed speculation is possible.

The word “persistent” is deliberate: persistent means over a prolonged period of time, but not necessarily permanent.

The idea of permanently deploying a British CSG to the region is not realistic. At some point, the Queen Elizabeth will have to go in for an extensive refit, leaving the Prince of Wales as the U.K.’s only operational carrier. And because of the importance of the Euro-Atlantic, it will have to be based in the U.K. Similarly, when the Prince of Wales is in refit, the Queen Elizabeth must remain in Britain.

Moreover, the costs associated with deploying more than a third of the RN’s ships permanently overseas is prohibitive, particularly at a time when the U.K. is facing its worst economic crisis in 300 years due to the pandemic and the economic uncertainties of Brexit at the end of this year – especially if Britain and the EU fail to conclude a trade deal.

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British public opinion would also be against the idea. Naval bases employ thousands of people, and a time of rising unemployment in Britain, people would question why their taxes are being spent on hiring foreign workers rather than British ones.

“Persistent” suggests the RN envisages a U.K. CSG deploying to the Indo-Pacific once a year or, more realistically, every other year. It is possible, however, that a RN frigate or destroyer could be forward deployed to Asia on a more permanent basis. This model is already being used by the British navy in Bahrain where HMS Montrose is currently based for three years.

Where in the Indo-Pacific?

Where would be a good temporary home for a British CSG in the Indo-Pacific?

Southeast Asia is one option. Singapore and Brunei would be at the top of Britain’s list for historical reasons and because of the extensive defense links between the U.K. and those two countries. Of the two, Singapore would be the more logical choice because the RN already maintains a naval logistics facility in Singapore in support of the FPDA and because of the excellent facilities at Changi Naval Base.

Australia would be another option, especially Darwin in the Northern Territories.

However, indications are that the RN’s favored location is Japan. There are at least three reasons for that preference.

First, Britain’s closest ally, the United States, maintains a large naval base at Yokosuka in Kanagawa prefecture. The U.S. 7th Fleet is based there, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. British warships regularly visit Yokosuka for maintenance and crew rest, including HMS Albion in 2018. In the IISS webinar, Kyd suggested that U.K. F-35Bs could be supported by the United States from its “hub” in Japan. In addition to Yokosuka, that could also include Sasebo where the U.S. bases the USS America, a 45,000 ton amphibious assault ship that also embarks USMC F-35Bs. As the America is the closest vessel the U.S. Navy has to the Queen Elizabeth there are obvious synergies in having the two vessels working alongside each other.

Second, an RN carrier in Japan would help strengthen Japanese-U.K. strategic ties. In 2017 the two countries agreed on a three-year defense cooperation plan. The U.K. is next in line after Australia to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Japan that would provide the legal framework for British military personnel to be present in the country.

Third, a British naval flotilla in Japan would help improve interoperability among the navies of the U.K., the U.S. and Japan, something the three countries have already agreed to work towards. The U.S. and U.K. armed forces already operate F-35Bs, and Japan plans to purchase 42 of the short take-off and vertical landing aircraft for use aboard its two helicopter carriers JS Izumo and JS Kaga once they have been refitted. Naval pilots could train together and share best practices.

The Hurdles to a British Naval Presence in Japan

While these three reasons are compelling, a persistent British naval presence in Japan would face significant hurdles.

The first hurdle, as noted earlier, would be the sheer cost of forward deploying a fleet of British warships to Japan for an extended period of time, even if Washington and Tokyo agreed to defray some of those costs.

The second hurdle consists of logistical issues. The U.S. naval base at Yokosuka is quite crowded, and although the British carriers are smaller than their American counterparts (the Reagan has a crew of 5,000 while the Queen Elizabeth embarks only 1,600 personnel) space would still be at a premium. A new pier could be built, but that would cost a few hundred million dollars.

An alternative would be to use the Japanese navy’s side of Yokosuka, or even base the British carrier at another naval base in Japan such as Kure in Hiroshima prefecture where the JS Kaga is home ported. Finding an airfield for the RN’s F-35Bs to park while the carrier is in port would be an additional logistical problem, as would housing 1,600 sailors plus hundreds of support staff.

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The third, and perhaps most significant, hurdle would be securing the support of the Japanese government, which in turn would depend in large part on public opinion. The Japanese government has not publicly stated its views on a British naval presence in the country, though it is keen for closer bilateral relations all round and recently concluded a free trade agreement with the U.K. However, the issue of siting military forces – both Japanese and foreign – has always been a controversial one with the Japanese public. In June, for example, the Japanese government was forced to cancel the deployment of land-based Aegis systems due to local opposition. How they would feel about a British naval presence – even a temporary one – remains unclear. But it is highly unlikely that Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide would risk his premiership for the sake of the U.K.’s Indo-Pacific naval ambitions.

Another problem – not necessarily a hurdle – would be the negative reaction from China. The Chinese government was furious with Britain over the Albion FONOP, and has warned the U.K. that basing an aircraft carrier in Asia would be a “very dangerous move.” Britain’s relations with China have recently deteriorated significantly over Huawei and Hong Kong, calling into question a post-Brexit free trade agreement between the two countries. A persistent U.K. naval presence in Asia would be another source of contention in Sino-British relations.

None of these hurdles are insurmountable. Logistical problems could be overcome, but that would require significant financial outlays, something the U.K. will find quite onerous in its present dire economic state, even if the Americans and Japanese agreed to help shoulder the costs. Equally problematic, perhaps even more so, will be for London to persuade Tokyo of the merits of a British naval presence, and for the Japanese government to persuade the public that it is in their interests too. As China steps up its assertive actions in the South and East China Seas, they may not take much persuasion.

Ian Storey is a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.